If one of the primary reasons for going to the movies is to enjoy yourself, I could not possibly recommend Begin Again enough. A sweet, wonderful, character-driven and ultimately uplifting story with a lovely soundtrack filled with original songs by former New Radicals frontman Gregg Alexander...what more could you ask for on a weekend matinee, especially as a delightful alternative to all those explosions and action filled spectacles filling theaters this summer. I smiled all the way through it, from beginning to end.
John Carney famously caught lightning in a bottle with 2007's Once, the low budget independent film about two people finding each other and themselves through their connection with music, and the film went on to win the Oscar for Best Original Song and was eventually turned into a Broadway musical. So here we are, seven years later and Carney has returned to play around in those same waters with Begin Again, another original story about two people connecting through song. If it sounds like a bigger budget, more polished, Hollywood version of Once with some big name actors, that in no way proceeds to make it feel less lovely and warm, and that's due to the human characters and sincerity of the emotions.
A big help to that is in the casting, as here we have Mark Ruffalo as a down on his luck, alcoholic, washed out music producer named Dan who was once at the top of the industry but hasn't signed anyone in over seven years. Ruffalo has this unabashed, scruffy charm that you just can't scrub off of him, and he excels at these kinds of characters because that natural, ragged authenticity just can't help but shine through. He's also got an estranged wife and teenage daughter (Catherine Keener and Hailee Steinfeld) and even though he's a total screw-up we're immediately drawn to him simply because he's Mark Ruffalo, and he is a talented producer who's just been unlucky lately. His luck's about to change though, because in the movie's first scene he comes across a mild singer-songwriter in a club one night, performing a soft folk song in front of a crowd of distracted patrons, and his producer's mind immediately starts working overtime as he catches on to her style and imagines the song in his head, arranged with the background instruments playing themselves to accompany and bolster her sound. It's a magical musical moment, one that sets the tone for the optimistic arc the story will take.
Keira Knightley is Greta, the singer (yes, she did her own singing!), and she's also at a down moment in her life, having come to New York City with her boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine), with whom she worked as his songwriting partner, but who's now made it big from having his own music featured in a film, and quickly falls in love with the rock world that opens up for him from becoming successful. As a result of that, Dave reveals himself to be kind of a tool (most obviously represented by his growing a beard "as big as neck," as one character notes) and dumps Greta for a floozy, leaving her stranded in New York, sleeping on the couch of her pal from back home (James Corden). When Corden talks her into performing that fateful night, she gives a quiet, un-showy performance but of course it's a showstopper for Dan, who accosts her with his personality and offers her a chance to record a demo. The chemistry between Ruffalo and Knightley is wonderful and the rapport that develops between them over their shared love of music makes this film into an old-fashioned semi-romantic comedy of the kind Hollywood really doesn't make anymore. The two set out on their goal of recording an album on the streets of the city with no studio behind them in order to get the authenticity of the real life hustle and bustle. The shooting on location in and around the various clubs and corners of New York make it a summer love letter to the city in the best possible way- one of my favorite scenes is when Dan and Greta share a headphone splitter as they stroll through the streets at night and share each other's playlists.
All of this of course needs the actual music that Greta writes to be at least somewhat good to justify Dan's discovery and faith in her talent, and I'm happy to say that for me the songs were great. I hesitate to give an opinion on original music in any film (the quality of songs is intensely subjective, much more so than movies even), but I really think "Lost Stars" in particular, that Adam Levine performs near the end of the movie on stage, is a gem and will likely be remembered at the Oscars next year (I also really like Keira's rendition of "Tell Me If You Wanna Go Home," performed on a rooftop in another great scene).
John Carney has a major talent for taking an old-fashioned story (two people meet, form a connection, bring each other happiness) and fashioning it into a crowd pleasing charmer of a film. In this one the characters are likable, the acting is great from all involved (even the bit parts from Keener to Steinfeld, and most surprisingly, Levine in his film debut) and the music works fabulously. That he can do this without making the audience feel awash in sentiment is genuinely impressive (I especially appreciated the refreshingly unromantic ending, which shows you how those can be happy ones too). This is no guilty pleasure, it's just a pleasure period, and that makes it a terrific companion piece to Once.
* * * 1/2